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How (Not) to Win a Nobel Prize in Physics

How (Not) to Win a Nobel Prize in Physics

Certain types of research and people have been historically underrepresented in the ranks of Nobel winners.

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Thursday, September 27, 2018 - 16:15

Yuen Yiu, Staff Writer

(Inside Science) – On Oct. 2, we will find out who will win this year’s Nobel Prize in physics. If you’ve published your own earth-shattering discovery about the physical world, you might be wondering if you can expect an early morning call. An analysis of past winners reveals some trends.

Historically, experimentalists have a leg up over theorists

Roughly two-thirds of Nobel Prizes in physics have gone to experimentalists and one-third to theorists.

Theorists in general run the risk of being too far ahead of their time. They may come up with groundbreaking theories that can’t be proven until much later, when experimental techniques have advanced.

One of physics’ most famous theorists, Albert Einstein, never officially received a Nobel Prize for arguably his most famous theory -- relativity. Though anti-Semitism likely played a role in the Nobel committee’s reluctance to recognize Einstein, the committee maintained that it was because relativity hadn’t been proven. The 1921 physics prize was ultimately given to Einstein in 1922 (long story) for his work on theoretical physics in general, and especially for discovering the law of the photoelectric effect -- the phenomenon where electricity can be generated by exposing certain materials to light.

Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s most famous astrophysicists, passed away earlier this year, without earning the Nobel Prize. His most notable work on possible ways to observe black holes via what’s known as Hawking radiation was published in 1974, but has yet to be confirmed by actual observations. And the fact that dark matter has not yet been found may be one of the reasons the late Vera Rubin never won a Nobel. She was responsible for uncovering the discrepancy between Newtonian physics and galaxy rotation rates, which is a pivotal point for the theory of dark matter.

Some laureates have won the prize decades after their theoretical work, including Peter Higgs and Francois Baron Englert, who received their prize in 2013, when the Large Hadron Collider finally proved their 49-year-old theory that had predicted the existence of the Higgs boson.

But, sometimes the experimental confirmation comes too late, because the rules governing the prize do not allow recognizing people who have died. Last year, Ronald Drever, one of the co-founders of the LIGO project to detect gravitational waves, passed only months before the 2017 prize was awarded for the work.

Not everyone can be recognized

However, if Ronald Drever had still been alive, Barry Barish, who oversaw the construction of LIGO, may not have gotten the medal.

The Nobel Prize’s guidelines also state that the prize may be given to a maximum of three individuals.

In a recent commentary in the journal Public Understanding of Science, historian Nils Hansson noted that “the problem of selecting merely one to three individuals as laureates from huge research teams” has been a criticism of the Nobel Prize for many years.

Although Higgs and Englert have publicly acknowledged the thousands of scientists who worked on the Large Hadron Collider project, those scientists are not recognized by name. In 2017, the paper announcing the experimental confirmation of gravitational waves was authored by more than 1,000 scientists and engineers, but only three shared the Nobel Prize money of about $1 million. Many have argued that this perpetuates the notion of the “lone genius” -- an idea that downplays the collaborative nature of much modern research.

However, the committee has stuck to these rules since 1901.

Luck and politics play a role

Sometimes closely related research may nab the prize instead. In 2014, the prize was awarded to three Japanese scientists for their invention of the blue LED light, which together with the red and the green LED, made energy-efficient white LED lighting possible. The inventors of the red and the green LED did not receive a Nobel Prize.

Even if you have been part of the discovery, you can still get snubbed sometimes. Lise Meitner, the co-discoverer of nuclear fission and chain reactions, famously never won a Nobel Prize, while her colleague Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their discovery. Chien-Shiung Wu, whose work paved way for the 1956 winners Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang, is another notable case.

Only two of the 207 recipients of Nobel Prizes in physics have been women. For comparison, the names Albert, William, Charles, Robert, James and George have each been represented at least twice.

Maria Goeppert-Mayer, the last woman to have won the Nobel Prize in physics, in 1963, once said: Physics is just puzzle solving, but “of puzzles created by nature, not by the mind of man.” But with regards to the puzzle of who will win this year’s Nobel Prize in physics, your guess is probably as good as anyone else’s.

For more of Inside Science's coverage of the 2018 Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine, Physics, and Chemistry, please visit https://www.insidescience.org/nobel-coverage/2018.

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Yuen Yiu covers the Physics beat for Inside Science. He's a Ph.D. physicist and fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin. Follow Yuen on Twitter: @fromyiutoyou.